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Hope for the Future, Plan for the Fallout: Inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

Literature, cinema, even video games have given us no meager supply of global disaster scenarios, be they in the form of annihilating wars, pulverizing natural catastrophes, or sweeping pandemics that leave bands of ragged survivors scrambling for boxed potatoes and bullets amid hordes of cannibalistic zombies. What we hear less about, however, are the real-life precautions governments and research groups take should any of these scenarios bear fruit – or rather, threaten to wipe it out.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Svalbard

Hope for the Future, Plan for the Fallout

Literature, cinema, even video games have given us no meager supply of global disaster scenarios, be they in the form of annihilating wars, pulverizing natural catastrophes, or sweeping pandemics that leave bands of ragged survivors scrambling for boxed potatoes and bullets amid hordes of cannibalistic zombies. What we hear less about, however, are the real-life precautions governments and research groups take should any of these scenarios bear fruit – or rather, threaten to wipe it out.

By Miksu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Enter the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

One of these precautions is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, known to some as the Doomsday Vault but among its staff called simply the “Vault”. If that name isn’t the stuff of science fiction, consider also the place: The entrance, a tilted monolith of concrete and steel, jabs out of the side of an ice-clutched Arctic mountain like some kind of wintry cubist bunker. Step through its grim gray doors and you find yourself in a cylindrical steel tunnel drilled 100 meters into the solid rock, straight through the permafrost, and armed with a blinking red security system you could easily imagine scanning your fingerprints, eyes, thoughts. Down this tunnel scientists buried in thick coats and hardhats wheel trollies packed with mysterious black boxes, all bound for the belly of the Vault. The whole scene looks like the title sequence for the next post-apocalyptic Philip K. Dick adaptation. 

Last Seed Standing

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on the island of Spitsbergen, the largest in the Svalbard chain, which despite its barrenness was not chosen for its forbidding aspect – indeed, Spitsbergen cruises are one of the most popular Arctic trips for viewing polar bears and glacial fjords. Rather, the island’s geological stability, low humidity, geopolitical isolation, and (traditionally) cold climate all contribute to the Vault’s purpose: provide the final reserve of vital crops should any or all of the planet’s 1,700 gene banks be compromised. These gene banks, protected biorepositories of organic material, house everything from plant tissues to animal embryos. In some cases, though, the facilities are located in regions subject to underfunding and mismanagement, upheavals and war – such as the gene bank in Aleppo, which years of conflict in Syria has rendered all but inaccessible. Hence the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Despite the harsh Arctic climate (and in part because of it), the instability that could upend the gene banks is unlikely to upend the Vault. Its engineers even accounted for rising sea levels, building the facility high enough that maximum water swell would not affect the seeds. But, as we shall later see, even the smartest people can’t see everything coming.

NordGen/Johan Bäckman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Svalbard Global Seed Vault Volume and Variety

In terms of containment, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is impressive. It has the capacity to safeguard up to 4.5 million crop types. With each crop type containing an average of 500 seeds, this means a total of 2.5 billion seeds can be stored in the Vault. Even at a fraction of this amount – currently about 930,000 crop varieties are protected there – the Vault houses the most diverse seed supply found anywhere on Earth. Not only are the major types of European and South American potato, lettuce, and barley represented, but less common varieties of Asian and African sorghum, cowpea, and maize are included too. Preserving seeds while also avoiding duplicates is a recurring challenge of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, complicated by the fact that gene banks often have to multiply and regenerate their own supplies before sending them for storage. But this process is nothing if not necessary: Once a crop is lost, it is lost forever. An animal species vanishing into extinction is just as irrevocable. 

CIAT [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Seed Vault Science

In order for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to function as intended, it must maintain certain conditions. Foremost among these are a low moisture level and temperature of -18°C (-0.4°F), both of which keep the seeds at a metabolic state in which they can retain their viability for many years. The seeds also have to be packaged and sealed in custom-designed three-ply foil, then contained in protective boxes before going into the Vault. Though the countries that send seeds to the Vault still own them and are the only entities permitted to withdraw the seeds, a requisite for deposit is that seeds are shared under the Multilateral System specified in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. Even so, as mentioned before, the best planning (and best intentions) can’t predict the future.

Dag Endresen [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Survival of the Svalbard Seed Vault

Global warming, the greatest threat to world weather stability, has also become the greatest threat to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Whether one believes the phenomenon cyclical or human-caused, the heat spike of 2016 impacted the Vault in no uncertain terms. The permafrost began to melt, spilling into the facility itself. This meltwater got only so far as the tunnel’s entrance before freezing, fortunately, but the occurrence deeply troubled those who once thought the Vault the failsafe to end all failsafes. The Norwegian government, which opened the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in 2008 in a former coal mine, has since upgraded the structure with pumps and waterproofing systems. Whether these improvements will prove effective against potentially worsening conditions in the Arctic is a question only time can answer. One thing is immediately clear, however: Though the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has always been off-limits to the public, its destruction would jeopardize us all in a very illimitable way. And this is one aspect of science fiction we cannot afford to see realized in fact.

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